In the last couple of weeks, Russia withdrew its forces from around Kyiv and announced that its true goal is to “liberate” Donbas, which means it’s probably a good time to review where Donbas is and what’s been happening there.
My usual disclaimer: I’m not a political scientist, historian, or journalist. I don’t know nearly enough. What follows is based on the materials I’ve been reading lately, mostly peer-reviewed scholarly articles covering the period between 2013 and 2020 and focusing specifically on the Donbas war. (I’ll include all the sources at the bottom.)
Let’s begin with the easy questions: What is Donbas? Where is it?
The Donbas region is an area in the east of Ukraine, on the border with Russia. It includes the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, as well as Mariupol, which has been under siege since the start of the war. The region’s history and identity are tightly linked to coal mining and metallurgy that developed there in the 19th century. The term “Donbas” means Donetsk [Coal] Basin. The region’s geographical proximity to Russia and the fact that Russian workers would migrate there to work in those industries accounted for the high percentage of the Russian-speaking population in the cities. (The countryside was mostly Ukrainian speaking.) During the Soviet years, Donbas was celebrated as a major industrial and proletarian area.
Now, to understand what’s been happening there (and to answer the question popular among the supporters of Putin’s war: “Where have you been the last 8 years?), we must begin with 2013 and the Maidan revolution.
In general, even after Ukraine’s independence, the feelings and allegiances of its people varied geographically. Eastern regions, like Donbas, had a higher percentage of those identifying with the Russian (or perhaps Soviet) way of life, while the central and western parts of Ukraine were more strongly oriented toward the west/Europe. The same can be said about Ukrainian presidents, some of whom had close ties with Russia. One such president was Victor Yanukovych, deposed in 2014 as a result of the Maidan revolution (or Euromaidan as it’s sometimes known).
In his article “A Tale of Two Regions,” Ihor Stebelsky writes that “From a geopolitical viewpoint, Putin and the Russian elite generally saw the Euromaidan as a revolution sponsored by Western powers to wrest Ukraine away from the inherent domain of Russian influence.” This view is not entirely untrue, even if it doesn’t take into account the will of the Ukrainian people. In 2013, the EU offered Ukraine (along with a few other former Soviet republics that were now independent states) to join as an associate member. Russia didn’t like this and responded with a trade war against Ukraine in August 2013. When, after much hemming and hawing, President Yanukovych ultimately refused to sign the associate agreement with the EU, the people, already fed-up with his corrupt and authoritarian administration (he re-wrote the constitution, forced the parliament to give him more power, went after the opposition, and jailed one of his rivals) responded with protests on Kyiv’s main square, the Maidan.